Belfast Unrest – the View from the Interfaces

Belfast is often described as a patchwork quilt of conflicting loyalties. Most residents live on streets that are overwhelmingly nationalist or unionist. Imposing ‘peace walls’ physically divide communities one each another. This has long been the case on the Suffolk estate in West Belfast, where a small Protestant community of less than a thousand people are separated from the much larger Catholic population in Lenadoon.

During the Troubles, tensions between Suffolk and Lenadoon often ran high, particularly when the latter grew quickly in the early 1970s with the influx of many Catholic families displaced from other parts of Belfast. Since the ceasefires, relations between the two communities have calmed significantly; last year, as part of a government-backed scheme, loyalist paramilitary murals in Suffolk were removed, flags were taken down and a new art work created on the interface.

But tensions across the Suffolk-Lenadoon interface have ratcheted up since loyalist protests against the Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the union flag from City Hall on fifteen designated days a year rather than continuously began in early December.

Protests have taken place ‘every night’ in loyalist Suffolk, said Paddy O’Donnell, a director of the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project, a cross-community social enterprise business that abuts interface. ‘What has also appeared are massive union jacks as high as they can be raised,’ he said.

Michael Doherty, a member of the management committee of the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group (SLIG), agreed. ‘Since the flag protests a load of union jacks have gone up on the interface, the road has been blocked (by loyalist protesters) and some cars have been attacked.’

While violence in East Belfast – most of it centred around the interface between the nationalist Short Strand and the unionist Newtownards Road – has dominated news headlines and many police officers injured, the unrest seems to be having a destabilising effect on other interfaces across Belfast. So-called recreational rioting, much of it organised by youths on social media, has increased across the Suffolk-Lenadoon interface in recent weeks.

‘Relationships have been damaged,’ said Paddy O’Donnell. ‘All our work is based on relationships. When those relationships are damaged it takes people to come out and put their head above the parapet to try and start rebuilding them. It’s difficult but it can be done,’ he said.

Issues of identity and territory are seldom far away in north Belfast, a four square mile patchwork of sectarian enclaves where kerbstones turn from red, white and blue to green in a matter of footsteps. The troubles had a disproportionate impact on north Belfast: just 5 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population live in the area, yet it accounted for a fifth of all those who lost their lives in the conflict.

The on-going loyalists protests have not spilled over into violence in north Belfast but the disturbances have ‘destabilised things’, said Rab McCallum, co-ordinator of the North Belfast Interface Group, which has its headquarters on the nationalist Cliftonville Road.

‘It is not happening on our doorsteps but it is a reminder of what happened in the past,’ he said. ‘It does have a negative impact on community relations in North Belfast. This (violence) does not create confidence it brings back fear. It brings the physical fear back into play again.’

In nearby Tigers Bay, John Howcroft, a community worker and former loyalist political prisoner, has found cross-community engagements have been ‘more unpopular and difficult’ since the protests began. Political leaders, on both sides of the peace walls, must shoulder the blame for the violence, said Howcroft.

‘Politics has laid the foundation for this path that people are on. Politicians has to take responsibility for this – they should have been focusing on education, investment and employment, things that would have made a real difference in people’s lives,’ he said.

Unemployment in Tigers Bay runs at over 50 per cent. In many nationalist interface areas, jobless rates are just as high. Across the city, life expectancy is ten years lower near the interface; rates of mental illness, depression and family breakdown are all higher in the shadow of the peace walls. Increased use of alcohol, drugs and prescription medication is closely correlated with proximity to peace lines.

‘We have the same issues in both communities,’ said John Howcroft. The same is true across the Suffolk-Lenadoon interface, said Paddy O’Donnell from the Stewartstown Road Regeneration Project.

‘Both areas suffer from acute unemployment. There is acute criminality. There is prescription drug abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse. There’s more off licences, take away shops and chemists than you can shake a stick at,’ he said.

Michael Doherty would like to see nationalists and unionists from both sides of protesting together, not about flags or symbols but about the swingeing budget cut that the Executive at Stormont has implemented in recent years. ‘We should be out there together protesting about social and economic cutbacks from Stormont.’

While the unrest has raised tensions across Belfast, the violence has been largely confined to East Belfast, said Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research and an expert on interfaces. ‘A lot of the disorder is largely confined to East Belfast, which seems to resonate with the summer of 2011 (when there was serious unrest in the East of the city) and the particular dynamics of the UVF in that area’. Last week Police Service of Northern Ireland chief Matt Baggott confirmed the involvement of senior Ulster Volunteer Force figures in the violence in East Belfast.

Those on the interface are watching closely to see where the protests go from here. ‘They can carry on being a nuisance and a problem but will it grow? As long as they can maintain the numbers at City Hall (where protests have been taking place every Saturday since the flag was removed) they could continue but it is difficult to see how it would grow unless something stupid happens,’ said Neil Jarman.

As long as the protests continue, criticism of the PSNI seems certain to grow. Willie Frazer, one of the self-styled leaders of the Ulster People’s Forum, which has emerged from the flag protests, has blamed the unrest in East Belfast on ‘wrong policing’. Many nationalists say that the police have treated loyalist protesters too leniently, pointing to the example of the twenty-six people arrested for participating in a sit-down protest at a disputed Orange Order parade in Ardoyne on 12 July 2010.

‘Are we going back to political policing? There seems to be one law for the loyalists and another for us,’ said Michael Doherty. ‘People in this community are saying ‘we thought policing had changed’, but in reality we are looking at the police facilitating (loyalist) protestors. That has caused considerable anger.’

Community leaders on both sides are worried that the recent unrest will culminate in a fatality, with potentially massive repercussions for the North. ‘Our experience tells us that these things only go one way. They lead to violence, they lead it death. People need to step back now before there is a death,’ said John Howcroft, from loyalist Tigers Bay.

‘It’s politics that created this mess, and only politics will solve it. Are the politicians ready for that?’

Bringing Down the Barricades?

More than two-thirds of people living near peace walls in Northern Ireland believe the barriers are still necessary, a study conducted by the University of Ulster last year found.

While almost 60 per cent of residents in interface areas said they would like to see the walls removed, only 38 per cent of residents believed this would actually happen.

‘Removing the wall is the easy bit. It’s getting to the stage where they can be taken down that’s the challenge,’ said Dr Jonny Byrne, one of the authors of the study.

Almost one hundred peace walls separate nationalist and unionist communities in Belfast. There have been some minor successes in recent years – such as the opening of a ‘peace gate’ in the corrugated iron fence that has divided Alexandra Park in North Belfast since 1994 – but the vast majority of barriers remain.

The unrest around the flag at Belfast City Hall could make the task of removing some of the peace walls even more difficult. ‘The majority of people want the peace walls to come down when the time is right, but this (violence) makes that harder,’ said Rab McCallum, co-ordinator of the North Belfast Interface Network.

The University of Ulster study found a much higher level of pessimism about removing the barriers among Protestants than Catholics. McCallum has seen this first hand in North Belfast, where most peace lines are located.

‘This is a stronger concern among people in the Protestant community that the wall will come down and they could lose their identity.’ Their fears are not groundless: around 80 per cent of those on housing list in North Belfast are Catholic. ‘People feel that they are being squeezed. It’s not a balanced situation, Protestants feel much more threatened than Catholics.’

This article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 201/01/2013.


New IRA same old stance

A new republican anti-ceasefire group in Northern Ireland is a threat, but its goals are likely to be unfulfilled, writes Peter Geoghegan

In DECEMBER 1969, the Irish Republican Army held an extraordinary convention at Knockvicar house in Boyle, County Roscommon. During the preceding months, the Troubles had exploded into life across the border. Many rank and file members, particularly in Northern Ireland, demanded an aggressive campaign of violence against the British state; in contrast, the IRA’s Marxist leadership, based in Dublin, saw limited utility in “the armed struggle”.

The December 1969 convention ended with two leading republicans, Ruairi O’Bradaigh and Sean MacStiofain, establishing a new organisation, the Provisional IRA. By the end of 1970, the press had introduced the terms “Official IRA” and “Regular IRA” to differentiate between the two groups. In 1972, the Officials announced a ceasefire. Within a few short, bloody years O’Bradaigh and MacStiofain’s group had become the IRA.

The history of Irish republicanism is a fissiparous one. Now, it appears that a new republican group is coalescing with the intention of taking over the irredentist IRA mantle effectively vacated when the Provisionals decommissioned in 2005.

Last week, the Guardian reported that the Real IRA, Derry-based Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) and a loose collection of independent republican groups intend to form a coalition under the IRA banner. The move would leave only the Continuity IRA (a small armed group formed after the 1986 Sinn Fein split) outside the new republican umbrella.

The leaders of the unified outfit have styled themselves as the “IRA army council”, mimicking the structures used by previous iterations of the organisation. There are reasons to be fearful of this development: among the republicans who have joined the new organisation are those responsible for the murder of Ronan Kerr, a Catholic recruit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in April 2011. The Real IRA was responsible for the worst republican atrocity of the entire Troubles, when their bombs killed 29 at Omagh in August 1998.

The “new IRA” has an old enemy in its sights: the British presence in Ireland. “The root cause of conflict in our country is the subversion of the nation’s inalienable right to self-determination and this has yet to be addressed,” the group said in a statement released last week. In a none-too-subtle riposte to Sinn Fein (which a number of dissidents were formerly members of), the statement railed against “a phoney peace, rubber-stamped by a token legislature in Stormont”.

So how serious a threat to the peace are this new group? They may be small, but their numbers are not insignificant. Last year, the Police Federation for Northern Ireland estimated that there are 650 people involved in anti-ceasefire republican activity. While dissidents have little traction in West Belfast, where Sinn Fein rules with a gloved iron fist, they have pockets of support in North Belfast, Lurgan and Derry.

As much as 14 per cent of nationalists in Northern Ireland have some sympathy for dissident republican groups, according to a study published in 2010. Supporters are mainly young, working class men living in areas of multiple deprivation. The author of that research, Professor Jon Tonge of the University of Liverpool, believes that the new dissident coalition is about trying to build credibility for the movement, but doubts whether it will succeed.

“I don’t think it gives dissidents any great tactical advantage. Unity won’t necessarily equal strength,” Professor Tonge told The Scotsman.

“Their intent to disrupt the peace process outstrips their capacity.”

Dissidents are hoping to profit from an association with a globally recognised brand name: the IRA. The decision to band together has been a publicity boon, reported by media outlets across the world. Whether increased coverage will lead to an influx of new dissident recruits is less clear-cut.

Northern Ireland today is hardly a utopian society. Over 70 per cent of people live in segregated communities. Sectarianism remains intransigent, as evidenced by riots during last month’s Twelfth of July celebrations.

But Northern Ireland is a very different place from the “cold house for Catholics” of December 1969. The structural factors that underpinned the emergence of the Provisional IRA emergence do not exist in contemporary Northern Ireland.

Religious discrimination in housing has ended. If workplaces are not as mixed as they could be, fair employment legislation has brought an end to sectarian hiring. The income gap between Catholic and Protestants has closed. The creation of a Catholic middle class has limited the pool of potential recruits to the dissident cause. There is no organised loyalist agitation, a la 1969.

Professor Tonge believes that the formation of a new grouping is “more about keeping the flame alive for a lot of dissidents”.

Dissidents will take succour from the deep well-spring of Irish republican history, from Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen of 1798 through the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish Republic established in 1918-19. Although eulogised today, the Irish republican rebels of the 1916 Rising were spat at in the streets of Dublin in the immediate aftermath of the failed rebellion.

Even the term “dissident republican” is not as modern as many would imagine. As Henry McDonald noted in the Belfast Telegraph recently, it “was coined in the mid-1970s when the Official IRA was engaged in a shooting war with the fledgling INLA”.

While heaping opprobrium on Sinn Fein, today’s dissidents see parallels between that party’s recent past and their present, especially on the issue of electoral politics and the absence of a mandate. In 1985, Martin McGuinness, now deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, said of Sinn Fein’s electoral performance: “Ultimately it is not votes but the cutting edge of the IRA which will bring about freedom and justice in Ireland.” It is a nostrum many dissident republicans still subscribe to.

Of course, violence has not – and almost certainly never will – lead to the promised land of Irish republicanism, a United Ireland, a fact Gerry Adams and McGuinness eventually recognised (albeit many years – and lives lost – after the IRA’s 1960s left-wing leaders).

Even with a newfound sense of unity, dissident republicans possess only a fraction of the capability of the old IRA. The group lack weapons – underlined by last year’s trial of suspected Real IRA member Michael Campbell on gun-running charges in Lithuania. In the post-9/11 dispensation, funds for terrorism are increasingly hard to come by in Irish-America.

Nevertheless, the dissident threat has certainly increased in recent years, particularly as IRA veterans left the mainstream movement in the wake of Sinn Fein’s support policing. In March 2009, two off duty British soldiers were shot dead at Massereene Barracks in Antrim. Two days later PC Stephen Carroll was shot dead in Craigavon, County Armagh.

Since 2009, security forces have intercepted ever greater numbers of dissident operations, a sign that activity is increasing but also that groups have been more successfully infiltrated. The creation of a dissident coalition heightens further the risk of infiltration. Indeed, rumours that several senior dissident figures are paid informers have been rife in republican circles in recent months.

Conversely, last week’s announcement represents the present weakness of dissident republicanism. Dissidents are hoping to achieve collectively where they have largely failed in isolation – not by forcing the British out of Northern Ireland, but by stymieing moves to make Northern Ireland a normal place.

As long as the army stays off the streets and there is no return to political policing, the dissidents, together or alone, have little hope of achieving even their most modest goals.

This piece originally appeared in the Scotsman, August 1.